Dealing with and caring for a parent with dementia
It was late at night and I had had a long day. I had just gotten a phone call from my older brother at around 9:30pm that shook me up quite a bit. My older brother stated that my father was now back but in an emergency hospital room in Seattle, Washington. He had come back to pick up some things from his old office that he had stored in a storage shed for the past six and a half years.
Allow me to provide some context for this story. The last time I saw my father was six and a half years ago in that exact office. On Father’s Day, 2012, (one month before the phone call from my brother) the Lord placed it heavy on my heart to pray and intercede for my dad, which I did. As tears streamed from my eyes, little did I know the Lord would bring my dad back from Eastern Washington to Seattle one day in the near future. So on that day in July 18th, 2012, while I was shocked to get a phone call from my older brother, I was at peace as I spoke to my father on the phone for the first time in six and a half years. As I choked back tears, I said, “Do you know who this is?” and he said, “Yes, I do, it’s my son, David.”
I’ve often shared this story with people online and offline. Usually I get the response, “I’m so sorry to hear that and I will pray for you”. My family and I greatly appreciate that response. Often, people want to share with me how they have had a family member or friend who’s going through a mental illness. I also appreciate these responses since they encourage and help me. In this article, I want to share how I deal with caring for a parent with dementia. I’d like to make it clear upfront that I’m not an expert in dementia care. I’m a theologian, not a psychologist. It is my prayer that as I share thoughts based on my experience, that God might use my situation to help you through your own time of need.
Over the past two years I’ve learned the best way to deal with a parent with dementia is to have the right perspective. That perspective comes from the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4:8: “think on what is noble and pure”. I’ll be honest with you here, thinking on what is noble and pure is hard when you start thinking about the devastating effects of a debilitating disease like dementia. Thinking about what dementia will do to my dad causes me to tear up. Perhaps your family member has cancer or another devastating disease. Thankfully, there is coming a day when—the Bible declares—Jesus will wipe away every tear from every eye. While that day is not yet here, I want to encourage you now to feel however you need to feel.
This leads me to my second point: the Bible teaches that Jesus is fully God and fully man. Why does this matter with respect to having a parent with dementia? Well, as a man, Jesus experienced the full range of emotions and yet never sinned. He was tempted in every way but did not sin. I don’t know about you, but this is what causes me to worship Jesus all the more. When I struggle with my dad’s dementia, I reflect on who Jesus is and what He is like, which causes my perspective to change. Rather than being down and glum, my mood changes to one of thankfulness that my dad is still alive and I can speak to him.
With all that said, I would like to share a few things that will hopefully help you to deal with and care for a parent with dementia. First, have a regular time in the Word of God, in prayer, and private worship. Second, find a solid Bible-believing Church and get yourself in a small group. My small group regularly prayers for my dad and asks me how I’m doing. They know me well enough to know when I’m not doing well. This is important—letting people close to you can be scary, but as Christians we are called to love one another.
Third find godly friends who will encourage you. Yes, get yourself in a Bible-believing church and into a small group. It is also essential to find Christians outside of your local church. If you write blogs, connect with people through comments or send an email and get to know bloggers. I always enjoy getting to know my readers and hearing what the Lord is doing in and through their lives. Doing all three of these things helps me keep my focus on the gospel and not on myself. This in turn enables me to have a posture of servitude toward God and those whom He places in my life.
I don’t know where you are at in your own journey with Christ, and I don’t know whether you have dementia or you have a family member with a serious illness. Having not met you personally, what I’m about to say may sound weird, but I’m thankful for my dad’s dementia. The Lord has used my dad’s dementia to soften my heart towards Himself, grow me in the grace of God, and also to humble me. It is in the fires of affliction where one most clearly sees the beauty, wonder, and glory of the cross of Christ. We have a suffering Savior who knows and understands everything we are going through and feeling, but He never sinned. He invites us to boldly come before His throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16), which is what I encourage you to do as well, to appropriate who you are in Christ in your life every day. This will provide the foundation for your empowerment to serve Christ and others, and also the ability to deal with whatever life throws your way.